“Has anyone seen the monk?” When I was asked this on our ship, I thought, “Now that’s something I’ve never heard back in Seattle.” I used to refer to Myanmar as Burma — the only thing I knew about it was where it was on the map. Prior to our arrival, we met with and learned from a Burmese monk, U Nan, and a couple Burmese college students that the local people preferred Myanmar (over Burma)
which was the name of the country prior to British occupation in the mid-1800’s.
Cheese: But not the kind you eat…
On our first day in Myanmar, we toured around in the sweltering heat, wandering the crowded and unfamiliar streets of downtown Yangon. We visited two pagodas, including Myanmar’s most famous Pagoda – the Shwedagon (aka Golden Pagoda). The Shwedagon was a very large, impressive complex…it was surprising and fun to run into U Nan, the monk we got to know our ship, there. He immediately recognized Piper and gave her a hug.
Overall, I was turned off by the commercialization at the large pagodas. After taking off our sandals, it wasn’t unusual to walk down a long, wide hallway with dozens of shops selling tacky souvenirs. However, the biggest surprise (and biggest turnoff) to me were these LED lights radiating in an outward pattern which had been installed behind the heads of many of the Buddha statues — inauthentic and totally cheesy! Of course Broadway Joe defended the look. 🙂 Later that night, Piper barfed. Thankfully she felt better the next morning. Score one for Myanmar…
Mandalay: Not in Vegas…
Over the next four days, we toured various cities in Myanmar on a Semester at Sea excursion with 4 other people, including a 10 yr old named Rex and his Mom. We had to wake up at 4:10am to catch our bus to the airport… brutal! After our flight to the city of Mandalay, our guide, Moh Moh (no last names in Myanmar) immediately took us to U Bein bridge, an old teak bridge with little to no railings and openings between the planks. It’s definitely not a bridge on which people would be allowed in the US.
From the bridge, we saw teenagers playing organized soccer, women working in a peanut field, a duck farm and a woman selling “rat on a stick” – the rats were splayed open and dried. Usually, we can convince Joe to try most any food, however we could not get him to try the rat. On our way to the bridge, it was interesting to see monks walking around in their red robes (just like U Nan’s) with alms bowls in their hands to collect their breakfast and lunch food. The Nuns in pink did the same.
Next we visited a silk weaving shop, and then a cool woodworking shop. Through our guide, we spoke with a young woman who had worked as a silk weaver for 10 years since she was 15. She made ~$5/day and worked 7 days/week. The intricately hand woven silk skirts (longhis) were sold for $600-$800 each and took about ~1 month to complete, at which time she earned 3 days off. The place we visited was clearly set up for tourists. I can only imagine what the working conditions are like at the vast majority of shops and factories which aren’t visited by tourists.
Mommy, this is bullshit!
We visited Mahamuni Pagoda, location of the 2nd most well-known Buddha statue in Myanmar which is covered in gold fleck. It was there that the girls and I had our first public, gender discrimination experience. We entered the pagoda with everyone else– after Joe and Alexander had to don local “longhi” robes to cover their legs– then we noticed the area surrounding the Buddha statue was roped off, with signs saying “No ladies allowed.”
I was surprised…we didn’t have any warning about this. Sydney was indignant about the situation and said she no longer liked Myanmar. Piper said, “Mama, they would never allow something like that in the United States.” I could tell they were struggling with their feelings, and I just wasn’t ready to have the conversation with them about how women and girls are treated as second class citizens in a number of countries around the world (not to mention some issues in the US). So I decided it was the right time to introduce the girls to a new term — bullshit! 🙂 Subsequently, they both got to say, “Mommy, this is bullshit!” After saying this and then banging on a large bell with a big wooden pole, they seemed to feel a little better.
After lunch we visited Shwe Kyaung Monastery, known for its ornate 3D carved building – roof, doors, walls. When it was built by the King, it was also covered in gold which would have been even more incredible. However, once again, there was an area reserved for men/boys only. 😦 Next we visited Kuthodaw and the “world’s largest book.” It is the only UNESCO site in Myanmar. The book is comprised of 700+ pages of Buddha scripture engraved in marble slabs each of which are enclosed in individual stupas. After a long day, we checked into our hotel and found mosquito nets around the bed. Thankfully we packed DEET with us… and we all slept great.
ONWARD TO BAGAN: “Cruising” the Irrawaddy River
Early on the our 3rd day in Myanmar, it was time to leave Mandalay and head to the famous archeological site of Bagan. This isn’t next door– it’s well over 100 miles away and would have been a 4-5 hour drive. Drive? Not us! Instead, we made the journey on a boat cruising down the Irrawaddy River. It wasn’t quite as romantic as we had imagined, and we were all more than ready to get off the boat after the end of the long day but I’m glad we did it. Upon boarding the boat in the morning we saw a group of women at the river’s edge bathing and washing clothes. It’s the first time I’ve seen people bathing in a river like this and I know it won’t be our last. On our “cruise” we saw makeshift huts along the river bank (appearing to have no electricity or running water), water buffalo ready to plow fields and pagodas but surprisingly very few fisherman. We were able to stop and get off the boat for lunch and walk through a community where they make pottery for storing water and cooking. At the shore, we saw boys unloading recently dug up clay from a nearly submerged boat.
After lunch we visited a family in the neighborhood who was stacking their clay pots in a huge circular pile getting ready to “fire” them with neighbors helping out. After watching a woman show us how they shape bowls on the pottery wheel, powered by the leg of another woman, the kids got the opportunity to try making a bowl which turned out to be much more difficult than it looked. It was fun to watch our kids interact with the local kids. We had toothbrushes to hand out as well as a couple inflatable globes on which we marked where we lived and where we were currently located. While walking through the neighborhood, we had a chance to see how people lived in rural areas. One family had a mother pig with 2 week old piglets which reminded me of the Puyallup Fair. We also got to see the local elementary school – one room per grade, no lights, no glass in the windows, just a few wooden benches and tables and a few posters including our alphabet. It reminded me of classrooms Joe and I had seen in Africa.
After the boat ride, we boarded a bus and were a little shocked to pull up to a very fancy hotel which a beautiful pool. It seemed so out of place. The kids didn’t hesitate to jump in the pool after a long, hot (over 90 degrees) day. The day ended with dinner at a large outdoor touristy restaurant which included a stage show with dancing. My favorite part was the large elephant (clearly a 2 person costume) which came out on stage and at one point danced on its hind legs…I’m still trying to figure out how they did that.
Day 4: The Best and Worst of Myanmar
Day 4 was the best day and worst day of the trip. Alexander and I flew in a hot air balloon over Bagan, an area with thousands of old pagodas, at sunrise. It was our first time in a hot air balloon and it was spectacular! I’m hard pressed to think of a better way to spend a morning. It was very peaceful and quiet except for the burners firing occasionally. Sometimes we could hear music being played below. Unfortunately, there was a 4’6″ height requirement so the girls couldn’t go. Since Joe had forgotten to give me a Valentine’s day card or gift, he told me I could go on the hot air balloon and he’d stay back with the girls…BUT that would also be my birthday present too. I took the deal! No regrets!
Our balloon pilot was a Canadian National Champion and a past winner of the International Race of Champions (I’ve never heard of it, but it sounded good). Knowing we were in capable hands, I was able to relax and enjoy the ride with the exception of feeling the need to take hundreds of pictures for Joe, which you’ll enjoy below! Alexander was a little more nervous, but he had a fun time too. We landed on a sand bar near the river and took a long boat ride and then a bus back to our hotel.
After breakfast, we visited Nyaung U market and saw a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables for sale along with lots of other local goods. The produce looked fresh and I recognized most of it – felt like Pike Place Market. Unlike Pike Place Market but similar to Vietnam, we saw a variety of meat and fish for sale displayed in baskets in the very warm air (no ice anywhere). We also saw a shop where they sold local “medicine” which was interesting.
Next we visited a lacquer ware workshop to learn about Bagan’s main industry — creating plates, bowls, and even pieces of furniture out of bamboo but finished in a beautiful, artistic glossy covering. We watched them tear thin but very uniform strips of bamboo which they wrapped, connected and stacked in concentric circles. Subsequently, they painted on the black lacquer which looked like tar. After it was dry, they’d scratch intricate designs into the lacquer. Joe bought a nice piece for our great room .. and …
UH-OH.. it was at this point that things started to go downhill for me – it started with a tummy ache, but soon I was unable to continue the tour and spent the rest of the day at the hotel. In the late afternoon, I couldn’t hold out any longer and threw up. Myanmar 2, Belfiores 0. Thankfully, that was the worst of it. In hindsight, I think I should have passed on the papaya they offered after the balloon ride. I was tired the next day but able to join the group for touring again. While I was down and out, I missed out on a very dusty pony cart ride around pagodas. Afterwards, all three of the kids returned not feeling well. Piper & Sydney were suffering from horse allergies and Alexander’s stomach wasn’t feeling right. We had a very quiet dinner back at the hotel, and later that evening Sydney ended up with diarrhea. Myanmar 3, Belfiores 0.
Their life, our life
Our 5th day in Myanmar started out with touring some more of the amazing pagodas. Unfortunately, Alexander grew queasier and queasier– and finally he was forced to drop out of visiting the sites, so I stayed on the bus with him. At that point, the country was kicking our butts, leaving us at Myanmar 4, Belfiores 0. 😦
After seeing the “Shwedegon of Bagan” and getting some lunch, Alexander was feeling well enough to join us on a tour of a local village, where we were able to see the inside of their simple homes– 1 or 2 rooms with woven mat floors and little to no furniture. No beds…I assume they sleep on the floors. No signs of a kitchen. The village was home to 500-600 people. There were 2 wells where people could draw all their water.
In the village, we saw a home with a few kids playing (oldest maybe 10) with no adults around. A 75 year old woman smoking a hand-rolled cigar showed us how she rolled the cigars. Our kids once again had the chance to interact with the local kids… we handed out toothbrushes to a few kids in the village and when word started getting out, more kids started showing up for toothbrushes. Then all the kids started playing together — they played badminton (no net) and hula hoop. There was one little girl who was great with the hula hoop. She and the other kids giggled when Sydney and Piper struggled to keep the hula hoop going.
After 4 packed days of touring and 90+ degree heat, we were all exhausted by the afternoon and opted to return to our hotel to rest and enjoy the pool. Patti, John, Kim and I all went to the spa for massages…aaahhh! And what about Joe? Well… he’d been suffering from a recurring pain whenever he swallowed.. after 4 days in Myanmar, it hadn’t got any better, so he just stayed by the pool and didn’t even get a massage. That finished us off: Myanmar 5, Belfiores 0.
In spite of our gastrointestinal difficulties, we had a great time. We left recognizing that the difference in opportunities is enormous. It was hard to think about the people in the village earlier in the day while enjoying the amenities at our hotel. I’m certain one night at our hotel cost more than what Myanmar laborers make in a month. I’m still struggling to reconcile the differences in my mind. Myanmar is trying to transition to a democratic government. They’ve elected Ang San Suu Kyi, a woman who the vast majority in the country look to as a beacon of hope. However, the military government has put a law in place to prevent her from assuming leadership. It will be very interesting to see how things play out.
Our flight back to the ship was delayed so it was a late night for us. We arrived around 10:30pm, exhausted and looking forward to 4 days of quiet time at sea before embarking on our next big adventure… India!